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The Drug that Would Not Die

A History of Heroin

Heroin is an opioid, derived from the sap of opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), which began to be cultivated by ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamians around 3400 B.C. Opium was first used in Egypt and Persia, and from there use spread to Europe, India, and China. It wasn’t until the 19th century that physicians in the United Kingdom and the United States began to understand that opiates could be used for therapeutic purposes.

Heroin itself was successfully synthesized in 1874 by an English chemist Augustus Matthiessen as an alternative to morphine. It turned out that heroin itself is highly addictive as well, and it was eventually classified as an addictive drug in the United States and has been viewed as one of the most dangerous drugs of the 20th and 21st centuries. It has been illegal to produce, distribute, and use heroin in the United States since World War II, but the drug has managed to survive in the black market, produced in other countries, evolving into even more dangerous mixtures.


The word “heroin” first appeared in the December 3, 1898, issue of The Lancet magazine when it was trademarked by the German company Friedrich Bayer & Co. for their morphine substitute. It is derived from the Greek heros because of the euphoric feeling the drug provides (“Heroin”). Other names for heroin include “smack” (probably an alteration of the Yiddish schmeck, or “sniff”), “skag” (an American English form of “cigarette”), “black tar,” “chiva,” “china white,” “junk,” and “Mexican brown” (“Origin and History”).

Opium Origins

Field of Poppies Heroin is a derivative of the poppy flower, which has long been popular in the Near East and Mediterranean regions as a cure for many illnesses

Heroin is a derivative of morphine, which is derived from opium, which is the latex obtained by making a cut in the unripe capsules of the poppy. It is one of the prime examples of a medicinal plant (Prance and Nesbitt). Opium has long been popular in the Near East and Mediterranean regions as a remedy for many illnesses and a source of pharmaceuticals.

The earliest written history of humanity’s romance with the opium poppy is found in the writings of the Sumerians dating back to 3400 B.C. (Fernandez and Libby). They lived in lower Mesopotamia, now western Iraq, and they used opium medicinally and perhaps recreationally, as their word for the opium poppy was hul gil, or “joy plant” (Moraes and Kita).

The Sumerians had trading ties with their northern neighbors the Akkadians between 700 and 140 B.C., and the Akkadians passed the secret of the opium poppy along to the Assyrians who, through trade, passed it on to the Syrians and Egyptians (Fernandez and Libby). By 1300 B.C., the Egyptians were cultivating the poppy and were trading opium as far away as Greece and central Europe.

Classical Greek physicians either ground the whole plant or used opium extract (Prance and Nesbitt). Greek physician Hippocrates, in about 460 B.C., wrote about opium’s usefulness in curing a number of diseases, including diarrhea (Moraes and Kita). Around 150 B.C., Galen, another Greek physician, championed the practice of eating opium and he listed its medical properties, noting how “opium resists poison and venomous bites, cures headache, vertigo, deafness, epilepsy, apoplexy, dimness of sight, loss of voice” (Prance and Nesbitt). He is also credited for writing the first description of an opium overdose.

Dioscorides Materia Medica Greek physician Discorides described opium in the 1st century A.D., writing that it was highly effective at treating ailments such as nausea, diarrhea, and insomnia In the first century A.D., Greek physician Dioscorides―in his De Materia Medica, the leading medical text of the day―described opium and its medical value. He described both the capsules (opos) and the extract of the whole plant (mekonion) and noted that it was highly effective at relieving nausea, diarrhea, and insomnia, as well as being an aphrodisiac (Moraes and Kita).

Opium then spread from the Middle East westward to Greece, and then eastward to India and China, carried by Arab merchants across overland trade routes. It reached China in approximately the 7th century A.D., and for the next thousand years, the Chinese primarily drank opium in the form of a gruel made by mixing the seeds of the poppy with bamboo juice (Fernandez and Libby). This practice continued until Portuguese sailors introduced them to smoking opium in a pipe in the 1700s, which greatly increased the drug’s narcotic effect and the number of Chinese opium addicts (ibid).

Modern use of opium began in 1541 with the Swiss-born physician Paracelsus, who prescribed it to his patients mixed with alcohol and spices. He called this medicine “laudanum” after the Latin laudare, which means “to praise.” Also called “black drop,” it was a favorite medicine throughout Europe for next 400 years. It was particularly popular in Britain where, until the Pharmacy Act of 1868, laudanum could be sold or purchased by anyone. In 1850, a person could buy 25 drops of laudanum for a penny from the corner shop, pub, market stall, or even the lady next door. Opium was the aspirin of the day and was the treatment for every type of illness from headaches, to rheumatism, to a touch of the nerves (Carnwath and Smith).


The principle active ingredient in heroin is morphine. In 1805, Swiss pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner purified the main active ingredient in opium. He gave this drug the name “morphium”―named after Morpheus, the Greek God of dreams―which later became morphine (Scott).

Hypodermic Needle Scottish doctor Alexander Wood invented the hypodermic syringe in 1835, which allowed morphine to be directly injected into the veins In 1853, Scottish physician Alexander Wood invented the hypodermic syringe, which allowed the direct injection of morphine into the veins. Morphine injections became the staple treatment in army field hospitals, and large numbers of soldiers who had been wounded during the Civil War became addicted to the drug. After the war ended in 1865, morphine dependency became known as “soldier’s disease” (Brezina). Upon their return, these men found it relatively easy to soothe their war wounds with legally available medical remedies or with opium, which was available in dens that had begun springing up in major cities such as San Francisco.

A Heroic Medicine

In 1874, German scientist Augustus Matthiessen and his assistant C.R. Alder Wright undertook a comprehensive study of codeine and morphine. They synthesized hundreds of new molecules based on these two drugs and eventually came up with a powder they christened “diacetylmorphine,” which was later abbreviated to “diamorphine.” This substance was the basis for heroin itself.

Bayer Heroin In 1897, German chemist Heinrich Dreser and his research group produced a compound they called “aspirin” and two weeks later, created “heroin” Nothing much came of Matthiessen and Wright’s original powder because they did not show there was an advantage to their new morphine compound over regular morphine. But in 1897, German chemist Heinrich Dreser at the Bayer AG pharmaceutical company began looking into the process of acetylation of medications to reduce their side effects and increase their potency. That August, his research group acetylated salicylic acid producing the compound they later called “aspirin,” and just two weeks later, they acetylated morphine and produced another substance which they also called diamorphine and was later christened “heroin.” Both of these could be considered leading contenders for the most important drug of the 20th century (Carnwath and Smith).

Dreser wasn’t as excited about aspirin as he was about diamorphine, and he developed it quickly. He thought it would have a specific stimulatory effect on the lungs, similar to that of digitalis on the heart. It was Dreser who named the drug “heroin” in reference to the contemporary fashion for “heroic” treatment. Bayer brought it to market in 1898 and promoted it as a treatment for painful respiratory diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. Heroin was praised by a number of clinical trials and was soon popular with doctors in many countries who began prescribing it for various illnesses and ailments. Bayer went on to advertise heroin in German, English, Italian, and Russian, among other languages (Scott).

A Dangerous Drug

Beginning in 1898, heroin was prescribed in place of morphine or codeine. In a typical early report, G. Strube of the Medical University Clinic of Berlin tested oral doses of 5 and 10 mg of heroin on 50 patients and found it effective in relieving their coughs and producing sleep. He noted no unpleasant reaction, and his patients liked it and continued to take it even after he ceased to prescribe it. But no one was aware that heroin turned into morphine once it was in the body, and it proved to be an extremely addictive substance. Even though the medical world seemed to be aware of heroin’s addictive qualities, from 1898 to 1910, it was still sold as a cough medicine for children and as a nonaddictive alternative to morphine. Interestingly, heroin was even heralded as the cure for morphine addiction (ibid).

Heroin Advertisement From 1898 to 1910, heroin was sold in over-the-counter drug kits as a cough medicine for children and was heralded as a cure for morphine addiction Reputable drug companies sold over-the-counter drug kits containing a glass-barreled hypodermic needle and vials of opiates (morphine or heroin) and/or cocaine packaged neatly in attractive engraved tin cases. These companies also launched advertising campaigns that touted the drugs as cure-alls for such ailments as cancer, depression, coughs, colds, alcohol withdrawal, and even old age (“History of Heroin”).

At the turn of the century, it is believed that over a quarter of a million Americans (from a population of 76 million) were addicted to opium, morphine, or cocaine (Scott). The United States was the first country to specifically recognize heroin addiction as a serious problem. The federal government first attempted to regulate heroin in 1906 with the Pure Food and Drug Act that required American patent manufactures to accurately label the contents of their products. These included the “soothing syrups” for bawling babies and “cures” for chronic illnesses such as chronic consumption or even drug addiction. Previously, these manufacturers did not have to declare that their products contained opium, cocaine, or cannabis.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Harrison Narcotic Act, which gave the federal government the power to regulate and tax medical transactions in opium derivatives like heroin or coca plant-derived cocaine. By 1919, the Harrison Act outlawed even medical prescription of heroin to addicts (ibid). The drug did not disappear, though; users turned to purchasing it illegally. Heroin addicts also discovered at the time the enhanced euphoric effects if heroin was injected with a hypodermic syringe. Despite the government’s attempts to regulate heroin and other dangerous drugs, a black market was created that exists to this day.

Heroin Goes Underground

While heroin remained one of the most feared drugs because of its addictive qualities, its use did not diminish. In the years before World War II, heroin production, trade, and distribution went underground. Illegal laboratories were set up in Asia and, for many years, the Italian mafia was one of the major crime syndicates involved in heroin sales. World War II interrupted global production of the drug, and supplies ran low. Because of its scarcity, heroin traffickers began the practice of “cutting” pure heroin with cheaper substances, reducing its purity (Brezina).

Author Jack Kerouac During the 1950s, heroin was the drug of choice for the American Beat Movement of writers and musicians, including Jack Kerouac and Miles Davis During the 1950s, heroin was the drug of choice for the Beat Movement of writers and musicians who expressed their dissatisfaction and alienation from mainstream American society. They included authors William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and Jazz musician Miles Davis. Heroin became an important part of this counterculture movement that rebelled against the mainstream.

The attraction to heroin also continued into the 1960s and 70s. In the late 60s, the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury bohemian community, which would spawn the Summer of Love in 1968, saw heroin replace methamphetamines as the drug of choice. The neighborhood’s crime rate soared―in part because of this taste for heroin and “speed” (methamphetamine), and in part because high school students were replacing upwardly mobile college dropouts and were finding it increasingly difficult to survive.

Celebrities and Heroin

Heroin was also associated with some of the brightest names in entertainment in the 1960s and 70s, especially in the rock & roll world. Janis Joplin was famous for her huge thirst for alcohol and her heroin habit. She was criticized for being coarse, foul mouthed, sexually promiscuous, and acting like a rock star rather than a lady. She bragged that despite her wild lifestyle, she never missed a concert. On the night of October 3, 1970, she returned to her hotel room after an album session and a few drinks. Once upstairs, she injected herself with heroin, returned to the lobby for a pack of cigarettes, went back upstairs to her room, and died. The coroner’s verdict was a mixture of heroin and alcohol―one of many cases of self-annihilation in rock & roll’s fast lane (Friedlander).

Musician Jimi Hendrix He supposedly loathed heroin, but guitarist Jimi Henrix was arrested for heroin possession in Toronto, Canada in 1968 Although he supposedly loathed heroin, guitarist Jimi Hendrix―who was perhaps best known for legendary version of “The Star Spangled Banner” during Woodstock―was arrested for heroin possession in the Toronto, Canada, airport in 1968. Customs officials found a glass jar containing four glassine packets of heroin in Jimi’s suitcase. He was found not guilty that December because the jury believed the string of witnesses who claimed someone who knew the singer, perhaps a fan or lover, had slipped the “present” into Hendrix’s luggage. Hendrix died on September 18, 1970, in London from barbiturate poisoning after taking nine of his girlfriend’s Vesperax sleeping tablets (ibid).

Other artists or musicians who encountered heroin include Eric Clapton who, during his “Layla” years with the band Cream, went on a three-year heroin-filled bender after the death of his friend Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones told off “straight” prescription-drug abuse in “Mother’s Little Helper,” Velvet Underground chronicled the ultimate high in “Heroin,” Jefferson Airplane followed the “White Rabbit” through the looking glass and down the hole, and the Beatles sailed with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” In his 1967 song “Cold Turkey,” John Lennon himself talks about the pain of heroin withdrawal (ibid).

Movies have glamorized heroin use as well. Quentin Tarantino’s black comedy/crime film Pulp Fiction (1994) features a scene where an overdosed victim has to be revived by a dose of adrenaline right into the heart. Danny Boyle’s crime dramedy Trainspotting (1996) also gained a cult following as it told the story of several young heroin addicts in Scotland. There was intense media debate surrounding both films and their glamorization of drug addiction.

In the 1990s, the heroin chic trend became popular in the fashion world where images of stick-thin models in magazine fashion spreads stared out dully through hollow-dark rimmed eyes. One notorious ad campaign for Calvin Klein fragrance featured emaciated models contorted into bizarre positions. This trend was widely criticized in the media because of how it seemed to glamorize the physical effects of heroin abuse. While the initial problem was with the models’ appearance, it gradually became known that a number of them were actually using heroin. In 1997, 20-year-old photographer Davide Sorrenti, one of the pioneers of heroin chic, was found dead of a heroin overdose (Brezina).

The Outlaw Drug

Heroin became completely outlawed in 1956 when the Narcotic Control Act enacted stiff penalties from drug offenses. But the public may not have been completely aware of heroin’s dangers until 1971 when two U.S. congressmen, Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy of Illinois, returned from Vietnam and reported the disturbing news that approximately 15% of U.S. soldiers fighting there were addicted to heroin abuse (Spiegel).

President Nixon In 1971, President Richard S. Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention to fight the evils of the heroin At the time, heroin was seen as the “black beast” of drugs and was so dangerous and addictive that it horrified the American public. President Richard Nixon took action and, in June 1971, he created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention, which was dedicated to fighting the evils of drugs. He not only wanted to prevent heroin abuse in the first place but also wanted to help the addicted servicemen once they came home―and soon a comprehensive system was set up to test every enlisted man before he was allowed to return home. If the soldiers were addicted, they remained in Vietnam until they dried out. This program was seen as a success in that only about 5% of the soldiers relapsed once they returned to their homes (ibid).

The 1980s saw the rise of crack cocaine, and President Ronald Reagan announced yet another war on drugs. Along with giving the FBI authority over drug activity, President Reagan also sought to fight the international suppliers of the drugs, such as Colombia, which began smuggling heroin into the United States in the 1980s and is still a major supplier of the drug to the U.S. today.

Despite the government’s best efforts in the 1980s and 90s, heroin still would not disappear. In the 1990s, drug users began combining heroin with drugs like cocaine to create the “speedball.” As methamphetamine became more popular in the 90s, it became common for some users to combine it with heroine as well.

Get High or Die Trying

On June 6, 2006, a 17-year-old boy named Joseph Kecker from Chicago was found dead, slumped over in his Jeep Cherokee on Chicago’s West Side. He was clutching a bag of heroin. He seemed like he had a bright future ahead of him. He was a good athlete and well liked, but he had been using heroin previously that year and had already been through rehab. Kecker had also mixed heroin with a prescription opioid painkiller called fentanyl. Used as a pain-relief medication or an anesthetic, fentanyl is about 80 times more powerful than morphine. Combined with heroin, it greatly increases the potential for overdose. The drug quickly earned the name “Get High or Die Trying.” Between May and July of that year, there were more than 400 deaths attributed to the mixture across the East Coast and Midwest (ibid).

Heroin continued to make the news in 2014 when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his t-shirt and shorts with his eyeglasses still on head in his New York City apartment from an overdose of “acute mixed drug intoxication” including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamine, according to a report from the medical examiner. According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Hoffman’s death was an example of addicts taking mixtures of drugs too close together, which is called “stacking” and can impact the respiratory system, and the addict does not even realize they are no longer able to breathe (Sanchez).

Heroin was initially invented as a cough syrup and painkiller, a way to deal with tuberculosis and pneumonia over a century ago. But it soon became apparent that it was more addictive than even the morphine it was derived from. Despite its outlaw status, it has survived on black markets, smuggled into the United States from countries like Colombia and Afghanistan, and is still reinventing itself in new and more lethal mixtures. Like any good outlaw, it has been glamorized for its “joyous effect,” but it rarely brings any result other than pain and tears to the addicts, their family and friends, and society.

-- Posted March 30, 2015


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Carnwath, Tom and Ian Smith. 2002. Heroin Century. London, UK: Routledge.

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